Iraqi Army in the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations (KTO)


Two Iraqi T-55 main battle tanks lie abandoned on the Basra-Kuwait Highway near Kuwait City after the release of Iraqi forces from the city during Operation Desert Storm.


A long line of vehicles, including destroyed Iraqi Army Russian-made T-62 tanks and trucks stand abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops on the outskirts of Kuwait City 01 March 1991 after the Allied troops liberated the capital of Kuwait. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait 02 August 1990, ostensibly over violations of the Iraqi border, led to the Gulf War which began 16 January 1991. A U.S.-led multinational force expelled Iraq from Kuwait during the “Desert Storm” offensive and a cease-fire was signed 28 February 1991. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

By early January 1991 western intelligence reports suggested that Saddam’s forces deployed in the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations (KTO), encompassing Kuwait and southern Iraq, numbered approximately 540,000 men, equipped with 4,000 tanks, 2,700 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and other armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), and 3,000 pieces of artillery. This force included the 120,000–150,000-strong elite Republican Guard Corps. These figures were based on the assessment that forty-three Iraqi divisions were in the KTO. On the face of it, this was a formidable fighting force that would not be easy to defeat.

To make matter worse, overall Saddam Hussein had almost a million men under arms, consisting of seven corps directing seven armoured/mechanized divisions plus forty-two infantry divisions, whilst the Republican Guard had four armoured/mechanized divisions and three infantry divisions. Despite its huge manpower and powerful armoured forces, closer inspection showed that the Iraqi Army’s fearsome reputation was based largely on myth. Its military reputation was not as great as it had been made out to be, and certainly its track record during the Iran–Iraq War was nothing to boast about. The Iraqi Army had not conquered great swathes of Iran and it had struggled to fight Iran’s massed human-wave attacks to a bloody standstill.

The Iraqis had considerable but somewhat mixed experiences of armoured warfare. In 1973 the Iraqi 3rd Armoured Division had been committed in support of the Syrians, but performed fairly poorly, losing 140 tanks to the Israelis. This was followed by nine years of war with Iran between 1980 and 1989. However, tactical use of tanks on both sides was at best unimaginative. There had been no grand blitzkriegs across Iran or Iraq. Nonetheless, within the Iraqi armed forces Saddam’s Republican Guard Corps had gained a particularly tough reputation. While hardly comparable to Hitler’s Waffen-SS, during the Iran–Iraq conflict the Republican Guard had formed a strategic reserve, acting as a ‘fire-brigade’ that was sent to any front that was in need of bolstering. It fought on almost every front and in most of the major battles, expanding from a single armoured brigade in 1980 to one infantry, one commando and three armoured brigades by 1987. Four years later it was claimed that the corps consisted of seven whole divisions. Whenever the Republican Guard appeared, Iraqi morale was greatly improved, as was their combat performance. These observations were not lost on western planners.

Principal Iraqi Armoured units in the KTO:

Republican Guard Corps:

Hammurabi, Medina and Tawakalna Armoured Divisions

Iraqi Army:

3rd, 6th, 10th, 12th, 17th and 37th Armoured Divisions

1st, 5th, 14th and 51st Mechanized Divisions

26th Armoured Brigade

20th Mechanized Brigade

Despite the impressive numbers, the truth was that neither the Iraqi Army nor the Republican Guard had been given time to recover from the gruelling conflict with Iran. In 1990 Iraq was still equipped with the Brazilian, Chinese, Czech and Russian armour with which it had fought the Iran–Iraq War. Much of it was poorly serviced and in desperate need of spares. Saddam’s armoured forces were equipped with some 5,500 tanks comprising 2,500 Russian T-54/55s, 1,500 Chinese Type 59/69s, 1,000 Russian T-62s and 500 T-72s, as well as 8,100 APCs consisting of Russian BMP-1/2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, BTR-50/60/152 and MTLBs, Czech OT-62/63s, Chinese YW-531s, American M113s and Brazilian EE-11s. These were supported by no fewer than 500 Russian-supplied self-propelled guns of 122mm, 152mm and 155mm calibre, and 3,200 pieces of artillery and multiple rocket launchers.

The bulk of the Iraqi tank fleet consisted of the tried and tested Soviet-supplied T-54/55, T-62 and T-72 types, all of which were decidedly long in the tooth by 1990. The T-72 was the Iraqi Army’s most modern tank during Desert Storm, although it was a good ten years older than the US Abrams. A few Iraqi-upgraded Russian T-54/55s and Chinese Type-59/69 tanks with additional frontal arc armour (giving a greater degree of protection against high-explosive anti-tank rounds) were encountered by coalition tanks during the fighting. Some of the Iraqi T-62s were also modified in a number of areas (including the addition of covers to the turret-mounted searchlights). It was not known if any had been modified to fire laser-guided missiles via the 115mm gun. Egypt also supplied Iraq with 140 M-77s, a Romanian copy of the T-54 that was also known as the M1977 or TR-77.

The Americans had very good intelligence on the T-55/62 and even the T-72, in part due to the Arab–Israeli wars. The Israelis first fought the T-54/55 in 1967 and the T-62 in 1973. During the 1967 Six-Day War the Arabs lost 1,072 tanks and about another 2,000 in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and many were passed on to the US for exploitation. The guns of both types performed poorly in long-range exchanges (over 1,500m), and while the T-62’s 115mm U5-T smoothbore gun was effective, crew performance was hampered by cramped conditions. Likewise their excellent armour was compromised by the location of internal fuel and ammunition stores (adding greatly to the risk of internal detonation, even by a glancing hit). The Soviet-designed tanks also had a tendency to overheat in the desert, thereby aggravating the already severe problems of crew discomfort.

Combat experience had already shown that the 105mm/M68 tank gun firing armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) projectiles was capable of penetrating the frontal armour of early T-72s. The Abrams’ 120mm gun had the added advantage of firing the M829 APFSDS-T (T – tracer) round with a depleted uranium penetrator. This meant that the M1A1 Abrams and the 105mm-armed M60 could easily deal with the cream of the Iraqi armour. In fact the US Department of Defense was almost ecstatic over the Abrams’ performance in the Gulf. Likewise the British Challenger’s 120mm weapon could knock out enemy tanks at 2,500 yards and beyond, and with its excellent thermal sights it was just as effective at night. Its Chobham armour was also enhanced by the addition of extra armour packs on the front and sides.

The Soviet-designed 2S1 self-propelled howitzer entered service in the early 1970s and remained in production until around 1991. Iraq is believed to have imported about 140 of these and the 2S3 in the late 1980s, and several were subsequently captured during Desert Storm. The 2S3 self-propelled howitzer had also entered Soviet service in the early 1970s and some 10,000 examples of this type were built. Numbers of Iraqi 2S3s were overrun in 1991, their crews probably having fled in the face of overwhelming air attacks.

In 1989 the Iraqis displayed a BMP-1 Infantry Combat Vehicle with appliqué armour fitted to the sides of the hull for protection against 12.7 mm and 14.5 mm armour-piercing rounds. However, none was fitted to the turret or glacis plate. Holes were also cut into the hull armour package to allow the infantry to use their small arms from within the vehicle. It is not known whether this type entered service with the Iraqi Army in quantity. The Iraqis obtained a small number of BMD-1 Airborne Combat Vehicles, and a number in poor condition were later captured in Kuwait. They were presumably used in a fire support or reconnaissance role.

The Soviet-built MT-LB Multi-purpose Tracked Vehicle was used as an artillery tractor for 100mm and 122mm guns, as a command vehicle, as an artillery fire control vehicle, as a cargo carrier and as an APC. Iraq is believed to have imported up to 800 of them during the 1980s, and some were modified to carry an Egyptian-supplied 120mm mortar. Many of the MT-LBs came from Bulgaria, which built them under licence.

Iraq had acquired about 300 EE-9 Cascavel fast and well-armed Brazilian 6×6 armoured cars during the 1980s. A number were deployed with the Iraqi garrison in Kuwait City in 1990 and were subsequently caught by air strikes trying to flee north. The Iraqis also imported several hundred Brazilian EE-3 Jararaca scout cars and EE-11 Urutu 6×6 APCs.

The OT-62 Armoured Personnel Carrier jointly developed by Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1960s was largely a copy of the Soviet BTR-50. Iraq procured about 500 of these and the wheeled OT-64. The OT-64 Armoured Personnel Carrier 8×8 wheeled APC served the same function as the Soviet BTR-60 APC (although they are not physically the same). Production ceased in 1990, by which time 10,300 had been built for home and export markets.

The Chinese Type YW-531 tracked APC was developed in the late 1960s and saw combat in Angola, Iraq, Kuwait, Tanzania and Vietnam. From 1983 onwards Iraq received some 500 of these vehicles, a number of which were captured in 1991, including the Type YW-701 command post vehicle (based on the YW-531 and deployed by regimental and divisional commanders) and several Type YW-750 ambulances. This APC would first see action with the Iraqi Army at Khafji in Saudi Arabia.

All in all, Saddam’s forces in the KTO were not to be underestimated, and while western intelligence had a good idea how they might perform, it was certainly far from a foregone conclusion. Saddam and his generals were gambling on being able to inflict sufficient casualties on the coalition forces to compel the coalition commanders to accept a ceasefire brokered by the UN Security Council. The reality was that Saddam’s timing could not have been worse, especially as his key ally, the Soviet Union, was in the throes of disintegration and was in no position to influence events. Nor was it able to offer a massive re-supply operation as it had done with Egypt and Syria during the Arab–Israeli Wars. Saddam was on his own.

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